Strong Ties

by Yolande

Part 9

As Ezra Standish was returning from the cemetery, he recognised the four dusty riders coming into town. A melancholy smile touched the corners of his mouth, genuinely surprised at the arrival of the group of men. They no doubt travelled quickly as he had done to be arriving so soon after him. 'Hell! He had to make an expeditious withdrawal from this place.' He suspiciously observed his former compatriots from his vantagepoint, as they dismounted and tied their mounts to the hitching rail in front of the Saloon before heading into the saloon. Ezra absently tucked the pocket watch and note into his breast pocket and jogged towards the hotel, where he had procured a room, only the night before. Glancing furtively over his shoulder as he crossed the street for fear the men would exit the saloon and see him.

Packing his gear was a simple procedure, as he'd not unpacked the night before. Quickly grabbing his things, the gambler headed towards the livery, to saddle his horse and depart for Cannon Falls as soon as possible. Hopefully he would make his departure with out having to face the wrath of Chris Larabee. He inwardly laughed, knowing this was the coward's way out but he didn't relish a confrontation with Larabee in his present mood.

Chris Vin Josiah and JD silently rode into the town of Talon Creek, all of them were tired dusty and a little frazzled after the hectic pace they had endured over the last few days. They had ridden hard; Vin's job of tracking the gambler was made easier knowing Standish's final destination. Unfortunately they had to proceed at a slower pace initially, to ensure Talon Creek was in fact where the Southerner was bound. They entered the saloon, thinking it would be the appropriate place to start looking for the gambler. As much as they wanted to fulfil their other needs, they needed to find the errant conman first. Once the four men were inside the structure and they found it obvious that Ezra was not here, they headed straight back out the way they'd come, intent on searching the town for him if necessary.

Ezra was just leaving town when he heard his name hollered out at the top of JD Dunne's lungs. "Damn!" Cursing his luck, or his lack of it at the moment, he realised he probably should have taken the time to change out of his trademark red jacket into a more non-discript version, that way he wouldn't have been so easily identified from behind. Lightly pulling up on the reigns of his horse he brought Chaucer to a halt, no sense in making a run for it. He may as well face them now as later. Ezra sat facing the direction in which he was going but waited until the youth ran up beside him. Followed hot on the boy's heels were Chris, Vin and Josiah.

"Ezra? We been following you for three days." The exuberant youth exclaimed slightly out of breath, as he gently patted Ezra's horse. Chaucer responded to the friendly ministrations of the young man remembering the scent of JD he nickered contentedly. Standish rolled his eyes at this statement, but said nothing. Instead he focused on the other three men now approaching him. He felt their scrutinising gazes on him, and he almost squirmed in his seat.

"Ezra." Josiah said.

"Gentlemen, something I can do for you?" The gambler inquired, while he nervously played with the reigns.

"You leaving already?" Chris Larabee asked. No hint of the murderous intent that Standish expected in his quietly spoken words. Ezra didn't immediately reply, he was baffled that he wasn't already on the receiving end of Chris' gun waiting for the bullet between his eyes.

Vin witnessed the confusion cross the man's face and almost laughed out loud. Best not upset him though. "Ezra you okay?"

"Yeah, um thank you Mr. Tanner."

"So where we going?" JD wanted to know. "The horses really need to have a rest before we head out again. You want ta wait a while?"

"I'm parting now Mr. Dunne. And you may certainly minister to your equine beasts before you undertake your next journey, wherever that may entail. Hope you all enjoy your visit to this backwater town." Standish nudged his mount forward with his knees and made a futile attempt to abscond the group circling him, but Josiah responded to the movement and prevented the man's escape.

"Whoa. Wait there son. Don't you be in any hurry now. We just spent the last three days trailing your butt to here, and we ain't letting you git away that easy." The ex-preacher gathered the reigns of Ezra's chestnut gelding and held them in his hands stopping any further movement of the horse.

"JD go and git our horses over here." Chris ordered the young Easterner. JD raced off to do this immediately, knowing Chris was in no mood to argue with. Josiah still held the Southerner in place while Ezra looked back and forth between the remaining three men below him.

Chris, Vin, Josiah and JD were all mounted now and sat waiting for Ezra to lead the way. "You're all coming with me?" Ezra dubiously questioned in astonishment.

Chris answered for them all "Yeah we are. You want to take it easy, these poor animals have had a rough trot last couple of days."

Ezra shrugged his shoulders turning his horse around and finally headed out of town, he only went a few paces before stopping again. He half turned in his saddle and spoke to Vin who had come up along side of him, "Mr. Tanner? You wouldn't happen to know where Cannon Falls is by any chance?"

"That where we're going?" at the affirmative nod from Standish Vin smiled a wide grin and shook his head at the man. "Yeah I know where it is. Lets go." And he set off expecting the other's to follow.

Part 10

Vin Tanner took the lead and the other four men followed languidly behind him. JD gamely tried to keep up with the tracker, continually asking questions about the countryside they were travelling through, how long it would take to get there and different signs used for tracking. Josiah and Chris rode together and talked occasionally, concerned with the gambler who had dropped back to the last position, trailing some distance behind everyone, but still keeping them in sight.

Vin came to a crest and stopped, turning in his saddle to wait for the rest to catch up. Chris and Josiah were with them almost immediately but they had to wait for the Southerner to reach them. Light had fallen and the sky had darkened, colours of red yellow and orange reflected off the clouds on the horizon. As Ezra reached the others he looked out across the plains taking in the pleasing sight of the sun setting. Lost in the moment of the breathtaking display of colour, he hadn't noticed the others watching him intently. Vin spoke as Ezra joined them; "we can stay the night down there," pointing in the direction not far below them.

Darkness had enveloped them, a black cloak dropping over them. The heavens above the sparse desert was sprinkled with shiny white diamonds. The fire centred in the middle of the campsite flickered brightly, spitting out occasionally. Yellow-orange flames climbed high as they hungrily ate the wooden sustenance. The night was depressingly cold, and the promise of getting colder before dawn hung in the air. Three men sat contentedly close to the warmth emanating from the fire. The youngest sat huddled under the folds of a blanket, only his eyes peeping out over the top. JD's teeth chattered as he drew in an icy breath of fresh air over the top of the blanket, "do ya think they're cold over there?" JD asked, indicating the preacher and gambler who were absent from the fire's warmth, and almost swallowed up by the darkness at the edge of the camp.

"Dunno, reckon they'll come on over when they're ready." Vin offered the younger man. Chris just nodded his head in agreement with the tracker.

"Geez it must be freezing over there. What ya reckon they're talking about?" JD could not reign in his curiosity any longer.

"I reckon if Ezra wants to tell ya he'll tell ya, iffin he don't then he won't." Vin warned, not wanting the boy to trespass the bounds set by the gambler.

Ezra was sitting perched on a large rock, more like a boulder, with his back to the camp. Every so often he'd take a swig from his flask. Staring out into the darkness letting the night surround him. Not feeling the chill of the night air or hearing the approach of the ex-preacher he was startled when the older man dropped his large hand down onto his shoulder and gave it a squeeze. "Hey son, want to talk?"

"Josiah, let us get one thing straight, I'm not your son," Ezra spoke with a mock seriousness to his tone. He'd yet to contemplate the strange relationship between Josiah and himself, but he knew at this point his was not ready for anything further.

"Whatever you say...son." A huge smile covered Josiah's face, which grew even bigger as he saw Ezra rolling his eyes in response to the second slight. He hadn't really thought a lot about it, but it felt right to call the gambler son. Although there was no blood between them he felt a distinct bond with the younger man, and he was sure it was reciprocated. "You know JD did his darndest to support your decision to leave. He didn't give up on you. Gave Chris an earful the whole trip, going on and on. He stood up for you and backed you up. The boy was like a dog with a bone, wouldn't let go, and kept digging those teeth in and ripping things apart. Chris was ready to rip your head off after you left. JD's worked real hard at him, to change his mind about yer."

"Seems I owe Mr. Dunne a debt of gratitude for his persistence."

"Yep. Guess ya do." The big man agreed nodding his head. "You get things sorted out in Talon Creek?"

"And what exactly would you be referring to Josiah?" Astonished that he would know.

"Ah... we sort of found out about that fella McTaggart..."

"And how pray tell did you acquire that information?" Ezra faced the larger man waiting for an answer. Before the ex-preacher could formulate an appropriate response, Ezra held his hand up and interrupted, "no, on second thought I don't want to know."

Josiah rubbed his hands together to garner some warmth back into them. It certainly was chilly tonight, and he hoped he would soon be sitting by the fire absorbing some warmth back into his aging bones. He looked enviously across to his other three companions, as they drank hot coffee in front of the fire, JD was even wrapped in a blanket.

Josiah thought the younger man was not going to say anything further on the subject and was surprised when he did. Not about to look a gift horse in the mouth he settled himself back against the hard rock that Ezra was sitting on, and although it was uncomfortable he'd forgo comfort any day to listen to what the gambler had to say.

"His name was George McTaggart. He was a gambler, conman no-good sort, someone Chris, Mrs. Travis, you, Nathan... Hell Most of Four Corners would have loved to hate. Met him a few years back, played a number of games with him, he lost most of his money, end of story. He didn't play all that well, to make a substantial living out of gambling. Kind of amazed me that he kept at it. I haven't seen or heard of him since that time." Ezra stopped his monologue for a minute as a shiver assaulted his body; he took out his flask and upended it taking another swallow. He offered it to Josiah, and he accepted gratefully, taking a good dose before handing back the flask.

"So why come all this way for someone you didn't really know?"

"Hell I don't know Josiah." The gambler let out a heartfelt sigh. Almost too softly to be heard he added, "nobody deserves to die and be buried in an unmarked grave without anyone taking the time to notice that they're gone."

Josiah nodded his head in approval, "you think that's what's gonna happen to you?" He couldn't see Ezra's reaction as he had his head lowered and the brim of his hat covered his features. Taking a guess that what he'd said was right he plunged on, "won't happen you know?" The Southerner lifted his head and his green eyes sought out the blue ones to visually confirm what the man had said. Josiah continued, "you're family, one of us. We're all brothers, all seven of us, we may come from different backgrounds, but we've formed a bond that can't be broken. We knew something was wrong when you left. Even if it took a little while for us to figure it out. When one of us hurts, all of us hurt. When one of us losses his way the rest of us will be there to put you on the straight and narrow. When one of us dies, heaven forbid, a part of us all will die too. That includes you son. No way in hell are you gonna die alone, we'll all be there for you."

Ezra contemplated what the ex-preacher had said in silence. "Josiah you're getting rather morbid." But he smiled his thanks at the older man.

Another shiver ran through the smaller man, the cold penetrating the lightweight jacket he was wearing with ease. Josiah noticing Ezra shake from the cold, declared with abrupt loudness, "Hell it's cold over here." Tugging his own jacket further across his broad chest and rubbing his hands up and down his arms to generate some body heat.

Ezra's only response to the big man's statement was a simple one worded agreement, "Yeah."

Josiah loudly roared out with laughter, dispelling the sombre mood that had previously captivated the pair, clapping the younger man on the back, he grabbed hold of Ezra's upper arm and dragged him off his perch on the rock, "lets get back to the fire."

As the two approached the campfire, Vin put away his harmonica and nodded at the two arrivals. Chris motioned the coffeepot; "Coffee's still hot."

JD snuck his head out from under the blanket revealing only his eyes, "what's so funny? Ezra tell a good joke?"

"Hardly. I warrant you would not recognise a good joke even if you heard one Mr. Dunne." Ezra heckled.

"Di' just get insulted?" JD looked at Chris and Vin and then Josiah.

"Don't worry about it JD. Ezra here just agreed with me that's all." Josiah sat down next to the cocooned man snuggled beneath the blanket and held his hands out to the fire.

"And that's funny?" JD asked in disbelief.

"Yeah, well, it is when I've been freezing my butt off for the last hour, and he finally agrees with me that it's cold." Josiah chuckled again to himself and Ezra shrugged his shoulders and rolled his eyes heavenward.

"The man obviously lacks a decent sense of humour." Standish deadpanned as he accepted a steaming mug of coffee from the tracker before sitting down beside Josiah.

The next morning saw the five set out early, with the predictable complaints from the Southerner about waking at an ungodly hour, and being expected to function normally. Vin making comment that as the gambler didn't know how to get to Cannon Falls that he best shut up or he'd be left behind. Ezra thought this to be a rather strange comment considering that the four men had followed him half way across the country and had no purpose to go to Cannon Falls other than to escort the gambler there. He shook his head in astonishment but made no further comment.

Standish reigned his mount in beside JD's later that morning, and nothing was said for a few minutes. JD had seen the approach of the gambler and hoped he'd get a chance to talk to him. The Easterner looked to the clear blue sky and spoke; not waiting for Ezra to start first, "beautiful day ain't it?" the boy sprouted as he fidgeted with the reigns in his hands.

Ezra sighed audibly, "Mr. Dunne...JD...I'd like to offer an apology for leaving so hastily, with out saying goodbye it was inexcusable." JD opened his mouth to accept the apology, but Ezra held up his hand, motioning him to stop. "No, I should not have left the way I did. Now, I'd also like to thank you for bearing the brunt of the verbal assault on my character, particularly from Mr. Larabee I hear."

"'Sokay, knew ya had ta have a good reason for leaving."

The remainder of the day was spent in a fairly comfortable ambience. The gambler tended to stay at the back of the group, but was never left alone for long. Josiah and JD took it on themselves to ride with the normally solitary man. They'd stopped around midday under the ledge of a protruding overhang to rest the horses and have something to eat. Following their victuals even Vin Tanner rode along side Standish for some of the afternoon.

The dark-clad gunslinger was stoic in his refusal to converse with the man and he kept a distance between them. Josiah had tried to persuade Chris to talk with Ezra, knowing the longer they left it the harder it would be. The gunslinger angrily told the older man to mind his own business and stay out of his. Josiah not easily offended, just shrugged his shoulders, and took off his hat, slapping it against his leg and trailed his fingers through his hair. The ex-preacher decided that he'd leave the irate gunslinger to his own ghosts and memories and contented himself with the thought, that at the moment, three out of the four were now on side with the gambler.

+ + + + + + +

Vin again selected a site for the night, which had a small oasis at its centre. Surrounded by a cluster of old gnarled trees and shrubbery, the area was quite acceptable for escaping the harsh desert sun and its elements. After all the horses were provided for, the tracker announced that he was heading out to do some hunting for that night's supper. Once again the sun lowered its head and sank below the horizon, casting a display of reds and yellows to meld into the hues of the desert soil. As the lengthening black shadows stretched across the land and the light of the day became dimmer, the remaining four lawmen prepared the site, making a fire and setting out their bedrolls for the night. Shortly there after a single gunshot exploded in the dying twilight and some five minutes later another ripped through the quiet. It was another ten minutes before Vin traipsed back into the camp swinging his haul of two kills along side.

Following their supper they all settled down around the fire pleasantly contented that this night was much milder than the previous night. The ex-preacher sat watching the expressions that floated across the faces of his companions. Making a distinct and obviously loud attempt at getting to his feet, the grey-haired man realised he had gained the attention of all the others, of course that was his intent. Four pairs of eyes focused on the older man as he stood. Josiah bowed his head before looking up directly at JD. "You want to help me with my horse JD? I think he picked up a stone in his shoe."

"Ah sure Josiah," the young man always full of enthusiasm trailed off after him delighted whenever his company was sought out.

Ezra removed the well-used deck of cards from his jacket pocket and manipulated them with lightning speed though his dexterous hands; "I don't suppose I could interest you gentlemen in a game of chance?"

"Not me Ezra," Vin said as he stood, "Ah...thought I saw a...mountain lion print earlier while I was out hunting, reckon I'll check it out." Vin was looking down at his feet as they shuffled in the dirt, not raising his eyes to meet those of the other two men, the brim of his hat hiding his expressions. "Ah... I'll see y'all later."

Ezra raised both his eyebrows at the retreating form of the tracker, following his departure until he was captured up by the darkness. "That was not a particularly subtle departure," Ezra mumbled under his breath.

Chris heard Ezra's mumbled words and voiced his own opinions on Vin's exit, "What cha talking about, ain't no reason why Vin shouldn't check out those prints. Wouldn't want to be caught unawares out here with a cat on the loose." The venom of his words was evident even to his own ears.

Ezra smiled, but it was forced and certainly didn't reach his eyes. "If there is a cat out there Mr. Larabee, you think Mr. Tanner would have taken his rifle with him." Standish sarcastically responded indicating the abandoned rifle left lying where it's owner had dropped it earlier in the night.

The gunslinger following the direction of the outstretched finger of the conman heaved a sigh and closed his eyes at the now transparent attempts of his friends. Leaving the two men alone in the belief that they would sort out their problems. "Hell!" the black clad man swore, tossing the remains of his coffee away in disgust.

"My sentiments exactly. Now if you will excuse me, I believe Chaucer deserves a rub down." Tucking his cards back into his jacket pocket he prepared to do just this.

"Hell ya horse can wait. Ezra...we could take advantage of this time and talk about...things." Chris half-heartedly suggested. The gambler paused, and appeared to be contemplating the pros and cons of further communication between him and the gunslinger. "Come on Standish, ain't gonna hurt none to talk." Chris used his most persuasive voice. Sensing the man was on the verge of agreeing with him, at least to talk, Chris waited.

"Tell me something Mr. Larabee... why did you come?" The gambler turned back to face the other man, confusion written over his normally unreadable poker face.

"You gonna sit down?" Ezra adjusted his jacket and reluctantly sat opposite the gunslinger, the fire separating them.

Chris identified the challenge in Ezra's eyes as he reclaimed his patch of earth. The man obviously wanted an answer. Chris was amazed, he didn't realise the gambler would care one way or another whether he came or not. "Whether you believe it or not, I came because you're one of us. After that time at the Seminole village I gave you a second chance, and you committed yourself to remain with us. I'm gonna hold you to that promise. There's seven of us, Ezra, you're included in that." He drummed his fingers on his leather boot as he decided how next to proceed, "We... I thought you might need some help. Vin and I checked your room; it didn't look like you were gonna come back. Thought maybe you'd need a bit of persuading. I know I ain't really done that much to convince ya to come back, was kinda hoping JD and Josiah'd soften ya up so's I wouldn't have to do much. Ain't good at apologising, just think ya oughta come back home." Chris felt slightly embarrassed after admitting this but was taken aback when he looked into the deep green eyes that were staring at him in disbelief. "You can jump in and say something now." Chris stated with a grin tugging at the corners of his mouth.

"Um... you and Josiah rehearse your dissertation together?"

"He say the same things?"

Ezra shrugged his shoulders; "A minor re-configuration of the words, but the message was the same."

"Doesn't mean I gotta start over again does it? Hell I've said more'n my three words for the day." Chris complained. Ezra shook his head in response; further conversation was interrupted by the reappearance of the three others. Their timing not lost on either of the gunslinger or the conman. It was obvious to both that their private conversation had three eavesdroppers.

"Well you boys finished?" Josiah boomed, dragging JD along behind him, he deposited the youngster next to Ezra, he himself taking the other side. Vin stalked in after the pair and took up position between Chris and JD.

Ezra threw Vin a wicked grin and raised his eyebrow; "Did you find that cat Mr. Tanner?"

"Nah. Prints musta been old, no sign of it," the Texan drawled.

"Next time you should be prepared and at least take your rifle." Ezra shared a knowing look with Chris; Vin reddened with embarrassment at being caught out.

"Tut tut Vin." Josiah sympathetically scolded, shaking his head.

"And you can't talk Josiah, there was nothing wrong with your horse when we made camp." There wasn't a lot that you could get past the gambler; the man seemed to notice everything. Josiah was about to respond but Ezra waved it away, pulling out his flask and unscrewing the cap before taking a mouthful. He offered it to Josiah before returning it to it's hiding place.

"Thank ya son."

Ezra rolled his eyes, "Josiah," exasperation showing in his voice, but was interrupted by the large man before he could continue.

"I know..." The bear of a man smiled unashamedly back at him. Laughter broke out amongst the peacekeepers, changing the melancholy mood to one more enlightened. Josiah handed the flask over to Chris, who in turn passed it to Vin and Vin relinquished it to JD before it finally returned to its owner. "What say we have that game now?" Josiah nudged the gambler in the ribs with his elbow.

Part 11

Two days of the journey had passed since leaving Talon Creek, and now they travelled into the third. The rocky terrain slowed their progress, as the men had to take extra care with the animals, ensuring their footing over the precarious slopes. The uneven ground and the unrelenting heat from the midday sun began to take its toll on all of them.

Chris had taken off his hat and used the sleeve of his shirt to wipe away the sweat that had gathered on his forehead. He used his hat and fanned it back and forth in front of his face to generate a gentle breeze; the cool air on his face was a welcome distraction. Looking back over his men he could see the telltale signs of exhaustion encompassing them. Josiah was slumped low in his saddle, his eyes cast downwards, relying on his horse to follow the direction set by Vin. Vin's pace had slowed since setting out this morning, even he was unusually anxious to reach their destination. JD had stopped asking all kinds of questions and sat benignly in the saddle. Chris had to smile as he glanced at his black sheep of the family; even Ezra had discarded his red jacket in deference to the heat.

All of the lawmen were looking forward to the end of the journey. To get out of this heat and delve into some liquid spirits and some home cooked food. Beans and beef jerky was beginning to get a mite tasteless after so many days. Even Chris had to admit he was starting to feel a tad saddle sore. He and the others had not had a break since leaving Four Corners, and that was six days ago. Ezra had had a small reprieve but he didn't appear as if he recovered from his hasty departure from Four Corners. No one had anticipated that following the gambler would have led them so far astray from Four Corners. Chris made a mental note to wire Buck and Nathan when they reached Cannon Falls, letting them know where they were, and how much longer they would be.

Late that afternoon the five weary lawmen entered the western frontier town of Cannon Falls. A sign slung between two buildings declaring the town's name. Some of the letters had worn off with time leaving only the confusing message 'C--no- -all-'. During its hey day Cannon Falls was a bustling metropolis. Twenty-five years ago gold had been discovered bringing masses into the town. The gold was scarce and became non-existent after only a matter of months. Just as quickly as they arrived, the influx of people departed, leaving the western town to survive as best as it could. Some of the gold seekers remained with the town, but the majority left. The town itself didn't benefit from the extra people, and its buildings remained the same now as they did twenty-five years before. Cannon Falls was small and neglected, no larger than the town they previously departed. The lawmen gravitated towards the saloon, guiding their mounts towards the building as if drawn by some invisible magnet.

Some of the town's folk ceased what they were doing to openly gawk at the group of men invading their streets. Wary of the guns that slung snugly around their waists and the ease in which they were carried, the most suspicious retreated behind closed doors, and bolted them closed, shutters pulled over windows and children ushered hurriedly inside. The five men were oblivious to the unwarranted attention, anxious only to find somewhere quiet to relax.

Although these men may have not noticed the response of the citizens outside, or refused to acknowledge it, they certainly recognised the wariness of the patrons inside the saloon. As Chris pushed through the batwing doors, followed close on his heels by Vin, Josiah and lastly Ezra and JD entering together, the boisterous carnival like atmosphere heard from outside diminished with the emergence of the five gunslingers.

When it became apparent that these men were not an immediate threat the locals resumed their previous activities, until the actions of the men indicated differently. The five sauntered up to the bar and requested four shot glasses, a bottle of whisky and a glass of milk for JD. The young woman behind the bar sceptically served the newcomers. She wore plain brown skirt and a milk white off the shoulder blouse. She was no beauty, but could not be described as unattractive; her 5 foot 7" slim frame was offset with a cascade of curly blond tresses that flowed down her back, her startling sky-blue eyes critically assessed the men before her.

Chris raised the glass to his mouth, relishing in the fiery substance as it burned a track down his throat. Vin had his back leant up against the bar and viewed the scene before him. Josiah was already on his second glass and gulping it down over a dry parched throat he slammed it down on the counter and greedily refilled the glass once more. Ezra was slowly sipping his, relishing the liquor as it slid down his throat.

The barmaid approached, and remained in front of the conman. Ezra raised his eyes to meet the cautious ones directed at him. "You boys ain't gonna cause any trouble are you?" Although her tone was serious the message was softened with the smile she bestowed on them.

"My dear lady, we have no contrivance of committing any heinous altercations in your fine establishment."

Josiah seeing the confusion in the barmaids expressive features immediately translated, "he means we ain't gonna cause any trouble."

Ezra tipped the remaining whisky into his mouth and mumbled under his breath, "I believe I just said that."

"Yeah, I just translated it for the young lady."

Ezra placed the glass on the bar top and argued with himself over the wisdom of pursuing the identities of the names mentioned in the note left to him by George McTaggart. He hadn't discussed with the rest as to why he needed to visit Cannon Falls. They had followed him blindly, so to speak, without questioning his reasons for wanting to come. So it would make no difference to them if they left this town without Ezra even trying to ferret them out. The only one who would know would be him. Could he live with himself if he didn't try? Heaven forbid what his mother would make of this fiasco. "Ma'am...?" Knowing the others were listening, but deciding to proceed anyway, "would you be acquainted with a Floss and Joe, unfortunately I do not have a surname?"

The young woman didn't answer immediately but scrutinised the gambler, closer this time. She'd already guessed that the man originated from the south from his sexy accent, her eyes travelled hungrily over his body, admiring the clothing the man wore, especially the fine cut of the red jacket and the trim figure beneath them, prior to answering. She made a startled gasp at the recognition, her intuition told her, "you're Ezra Standish!"

Ezra's mouth fell agape, at the declaration of the woman. Josiah roared with laughter at the astonished expression of his friend, and he couldn't help saying, "your reputation precedes you son," while slapping the gambler good-naturedly on his back. "Josiah Sanchez ma'am, this here's JD Dunne, sheriff of Four Corners, Vin Tanner and on his right Chris Larabee and of course this here's Ezra."

The woman held out her hand to the gambler, who took the outstretched hand in his own, "I'm Florence Carter... Floss... and Joe's my son. Gordy described you to a tee. Didn't say you were so good looking though." Chris and Vin shared a smirk at the sudden flush of red that appeared on the gambler's handsome face at the woman's flirtatious remark. The woman looked expectantly towards the saloon doors anticipating the arrival of George McTaggart. "Gordy come back with you?" the woman looked back at the gambler for confirmation.

Gordy? How on earth did he come up with that moniker; the gambling man mused to himself? Bracing himself for the next revelation, which he was certain the woman knew nothing about, the Southerner took a deep breath and forged ahead. "Miz Carter. Um... I hate to have to inform you..." but Floss interrupted before he could tell her.

"He's dead isn't he?" a thread of fear could be heard in the softly whispered words.

"Yes ma'am he is." The gambler reluctantly agreed.

"Would you gentlemen please excuse me. I have something to do out back." The woman made a hasty retreat through to the kitchen, but not before a sob escaped uncontrollably from her though.

"Damn!" The Southerner bit out, grinding his teeth together.

Part 12

The five men sat sullenly at a table against the back wall. Josiah sat to the right of Ezra and Vin on his left, next to Vin was Chris and between Chris and Josiah JD sat. Josiah had not long returned to the saloon after organising rooms at the only hotel in town, for them to stay. "Has the young lady reappeared?"


"Ain't your fault Ezra."

"The lady in question having vanished into the bowels of this establishment following our disastrous discussion, how is that not my fault?" the gambler's weary eyes sought out the ex-preacher's, daring the man to refute him.

"Reckon she's just a bit upset at the news is all." Vin tried to placate the gambler.

Feeling the need to communicate his regret to the his four friends he admitted in a voice barely above a whisper, "I didn't know he even had anyone that needed to be contacted." The four men had to strain forward in their chairs to capture the faint words spoken by the southerner. Ezra held his head in his hands, he was disturbed that he'd failed to notify someone that would have honestly mourned McTaggart's demise and genuinely wanted to be at the funeral.

"How'd ya find out about 'em Ezra?" JD inquired.

Before the Southerner could answer Floss re-emerged from the kitchen, with a young boy of seven or eight at her side. He was a skinny lad with gangly limbs protruding from clothes that fit too well, his feet were bare on the wooden floor. A mass of red hair fell in a tangled mess, from his head. She ignored the other patrons and ushered the young boy along, guiding him with a hand behind his back. Her eyes were red and swollen a testament to her grief. She walked up to the table with an outward confidence. "This is my boy, Joe. Say how do you do to Mr. Standish and his friends."

The boy shyly spoke, "How do you do?" and he gamely held out his small hand towards the man in the red jacket.

The Southerner smiled at the boy and shook the boy's outstretched hand. "Well...I'm fine. And how are you Mr. Carter?"

"My name's Joe McTaggart!" The boy boldly stated.

" apologies, Mr. McTaggart."

"You go along and play now Joey." Floss ushered the boy off in the direction of the kitchen once more. Returning her attention back to the men sitting at the table she felt rather uncomfortable at her son's announcement, wringing here hands nervously. "We were planning on getting married, it just never seemed to be the right time," she confessed.

"No need to apologise to us ma'am, we don't hold you in judgment, only the Lord sees fit to do that."

"You a Preacher?"

"Used to be, a long while ago." The large man admitted.

"Mr. Standish, how did Gordy die? Did it have anything to with what he had to talk to you about?

"Ma'am, first I heard of George was after his demise, as to how he died, he was shot."

"You mean somebody killed him?"

"That would be my guess ma'am." Giving it a moment's thought added, "Do you know what he wanted to talk to me about?"

"Not really, something about a deed, but he left here over a month ago. He wired you before he left here, and expected to meet up with you in Talon Creek."

"Sorry Miz Carter, but I didn't receive any communique from him." Pulling out the pocket watch he had the forethought to bring with him he presented it to Floss. "This was all he had with him, unfortunately it doesn't work. There was also a note addressed to me inside the back casing."

Floss took the watch from the gambler and gently turned it over, caressing it lovingly in her hands, running her fingers over the inscription on the back. Fresh tears began to flow down her cheeks unashamedly, and she absently wiped them away with the back of her hand. "Thank-you Mr. Standish for bringing this back to me. I...I need to go and talk to Joe."

Part 13

Ezra Standish was seated at a table immersed in a game of poker with some of the locals. After talking with Floss the lawmen decided to check out the rooms Josiah had organised for them and then partake in some nourishment at the restaurant. They then split up to check out the town. Chris went to the Sheriff's office JD and Josiah took the north end of town and Vin and Ezra took the south end. They all met back up at the saloon about two hours later.

JD decided to call it an early night and headed for his room. Chris and Vin followed the young man's exit two and a half hours later. Leaving Josiah sitting at a table by himself, just watching the coming and goings, enjoying the peaceable atmosphere, and watching his boy rake in another winning hand. The ex-preacher ran a hand over the rough stubble on his chin, covering the smile that had materialised on his face. He fought the urge to yawn, willing himself to stay awake. Josiah twirled the wooden cross in his fingers that hung down his chest, hoping Ezra wasn't going to pull an all-nighter.

It was around 12.30am when a new arrival entered the saloon. He drew Josiah's attention because the room had emptied out, excluding the three playing poker with Ezra, and himself. He was a man of average height and a little on the too heavy side, although he carried himself with a prestigious air about him. His belly hung out over his belt and the shirt buttons strained to hold it in place. His hair was thinning on top, and was parted evenly down the centre. What caught Josiah's gaze though was the gun that hung from his gunbelt, riding low over his hips, it looked almost brand new, and it appeared to sit uncomfortably on the man. A smoking cheroot sat at a precarious angle from the left side of his mouth, and he led a smoky path behind him as he walked along, right up to the table Ezra was sitting at. His boots spoke on the wooden floorboards, echoing as he traversed the short distance. Ezra had also noticed the entrance of the man and wondered at the man's intent.

"Sir if you're interested in a game of chance perhaps we could rendezvous in the morning, as all the seats are presently taken?" At the instant the words left his mouth, the three men quickly withdrew, falling over each other as they made their hasty retreat. The Southerner could see the fear in their eyes as they looked at the newcomer. "Ah... Looks like a seat just became available." Ezra indicated the now empty seats.

Josiah cautiously approached the gambler's table and stood to the right of the still seated gambler. He wasn't about to interfere in the confrontation unless it was warranted. The newcomer ignored the ex-preacher and glared menacingly at the smaller man. Ezra pushed his chair back from the table in case there was a physical altercation.

"I'm Hal Murgon, and I own more'an half of this town." He announced with an air of pomposity.

"Well Mr. Murgon I'm most impressed." The southerner sarcastically drawled unimpressed.

"Ezra Standish, gambler and conman. Not a particularly flattering resume." Murgon bent down, resting both elbows on the table and leaned closer to the Southerner. Smoke escaped around the sides of his mouth, past yellowing teeth. "Now I'm suggesting, real nice like, that you leave my town. We don't want your sort in our town." Murgon threatened, standing back up he kicked the table effortlessly out of way, money and coins spraying in all directions. Ezra casually stood up to meet his attacker, his face grim, but unperturbed by the display of bravado. Murgon took a step closer and obtrusively invaded the gambler's personal space, his face only a mere inch or so away from the gambler's, breathing smoke into his face to intimidate him.

"Now I'm guessing you don't make too many friends this way?"

Josiah smirked at the audacity of his fellow compatriot. "Ezra don't roil him up any further." He whispered into his ear.

"Butt out preacher man!" Murgon hollered at Josiah. "I'm gonna make it real simple for you to understand, GET OUT OF MY TOWN!" Murgon menacingly turned on his heel and made a dramatic departure from the saloon.

Ezra stared mystified at the empty space where Murgon had just vacated, "A bit melodramatic. You think he's pissed?"

"Yep. I'll help you collect your winnings, then I'm calling it a night."

"Guess I'll be coming with you, as I seem to have lost my players." Ezra accepted the offer of help and departed the saloon with Josiah.


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